In the following simple guide to recording acoustic guitar, I’m going to walk you through the process of creating high-quality acoustic guitar-based home recordings.
I’ve recorded well over a hundred songs using the methods discussed below, starting years ago on my analog 4-track recorder before making the move to a digital recording environment. Over that time I’ve picked up some great tips from audio engineering friends, taken courses in audio engineering, and absorbed a lot from my own experiences recording everything from initial sketches of song ideas on my mobile phone, and rough demos in my home studio to music recorded in professional studios.
There’s never been a better time to get into home recording
It wasn’t all that long ago that it was cost-prohibitive for the home musician to record their own music. I needed a bank loan to afford my first analog 4-track recording console (The Tascam Portastudio).
But, nowadays, thanks to the digital revolution almost anyone can record quality sounding audio from the comfort of their own home with minimal cost and far less effort.
Don’t get me wrong.
For most of us, there’s still going to be a big difference in terms of audio quality when comparing a home recording to a recording produced in a professional recording studio. But a lot of these differences come back to aspects such as room acoustics (studios are designed with this in mind, unlike your bedroom) and the skills of an experienced audio engineer.
But, microphones aside, the gap isn’t anywhere near as large as it once was when it comes to equipment.
To illustrate this point, consider the album of the year in 2020 ‘When we fall asleep where do we go’ produced and recorded by Billie Eilish and brother Finneas was recorded in a home studio costing less than $3000 to set up.
If you’re just getting started, you may not have a spare 3k lying around to invest in your home studio but it’s easy to see that the barrier to entry for recording is relatively low compared to years gone by.
What Makes a Great Acoustic Guitar Recording
Even if you are intending to just record a quick demo to capture a song idea in its infancy there are many ways you can improve the quality of your recordings, regardless of the equipment, you have available, while still making the process simple and repeatable.
So, what makes a great acoustic guitar recording?
As cliche as it sounds, your ears are your greatest asset when it comes to recording and like most things, the more you record the better they will become.
But, for the most part, when recording the acoustic guitar you should be attempting to reproduce what you are hearing when you play. Therefore, if you want to record great sounding acoustic guitar, the most important component is a great-sounding acoustic guitar and a great-sounding room to record it in.
Consider the following:
- How does your guitar sound?
Is your guitar noisy e.g. you can hear buzzing, and mechanical vibrations? that could potentially be picked up by your microphone? Putting on a fresh set of strings and ensuring the guitar is well intonated, along with addressing loose hardware can make a big difference.
- Is there a particular room that sounds better than others?
Room acoustics are a major factor when it comes to recording quality audio. When sound is able to bounce around within the confines of a room, reflecting of non-absorptive surfaces the soundwaves hit the microphone at different times which results in poor note separation and a less focused recording. Picking the right room can be the difference between a clean and muddy-sounding recording.
- Microphone placement
There’s no doubt, the quality of the microphone is important. But regardless of the microphone, or microphones, you have at your disposal, the position of the microphone tends to have a big influence on the quality of an acoustic guitar recording. For best results point the microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar approx. 12 – 14 inches away to begin with and then experiment with proximity, along with the angle of the mic.
- Have you checked your levels?
If your signal is coming in too hot you will have less headroom to work with, and that increases the chances of clipping ocurring. We’ll explain more about what this is, and how to prevent it further along.
- Are you well rehearsed?
A good motto to live by when recording is: Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. If you are well rehearsed you will save time and reduce the inevitable tension that can affect your playing. Once that red record button is flashing, and you miss your first couple of takes, it can do funny things to your state of mind.
Why most home recordings sound bad
If you are anything like I once was and the audio quality of your acoustic demos gets in the way, preventing people from getting a true indication of your songwriting, you may not realize how simple it can be to fix some of the more obvious problems.
A lot of home recordings, that include acoustic guitar are plagued with the following issues:
- Excessive bass response
- Excessive brightness
- Unwanted distortion
- Lack of clarity
- Unwanted noise
- The recording sounds better on some devices compared to others
- The energy of the song isn’t captured
Audio engineers used to borrow a term from computer science: garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). What this means is if you capture a poor-sounding take no amount of post-production polish will make your music sound great.
Sure, there are definitely things you can do in the mix to reduce the impact of some of the issues listed above but most of these can be overcome prior to recording by making just a few small changes.
We’ll go through each of these below:
Excessive Bass Response
Most of the time an acoustic guitar recording with excessive bass response will be caused by microphone placement. To remedy this, consider the placement of the microphone with regard to the sound hole and your proximity to the microphone.
The sound hole is where much of the bass response of the guitar comes from.
If you position the microphone directly in front of the soundhole you can expect a lot of air to be pushed out of the soundhole, directly into the microphone resulting in a ‘whoosh’ of low-end frequencies that will dominate your recordings. And, if you are planning on double-tracking your guitar the problem will be exponentially magnified.
You can read my full article here on boomy acoustic guitar recordings.
If your guitar sounds full and rich when played acoustically but too bright e.g. thin and abrasive when recorded there’s a couple of potential issues that could be affecting the recording. The most likely culprit in my experience is using the acoustic pickup of the guitar (if your guitar has one) instead of a microphone.
The majority of acoustic/electric guitars feature under-saddle piezo pickups. And, while they have their uses, to put it bluntly, the majority of them are complete rubbish when it comes to recording.
Unless you have no other option e.g. you don’t own a microphone or there is just too much noise being picked up from external sources, use a microphone, or if you must use a blend of the guitar’s pickup along with the microphone.
One of the most effective tools a songwriter has at their disposal is the use of dynamics e.g. the contrast between low and high volume. But what often occurs when recording a demo is the quieter parts sound fine, but when the intensity is increased (and therefore volume is increased) the guitars distort due to the signal being too hot.
When you are testing your input levels, consider the entire song. Test the levels when playing both the quiet and louder sections of the song before settling on your input gain level.
Lack of clarity
If your recordings lack clarity and definition the room itself is probably the most likely culprit. Consider for a second that the acoustic guitar is well, an acoustic instrument.
This means the tone of the guitar is going to be influenced by the environment you are playing in. If there is too much sound reflection e.g. the room has a lot of hard surfaces and the microphone is detecting direct sound along with reflected sound there is the potential for phase issues such as comb filtering, resulting in the guitar sounding muddy and lacking note separation and definition.
You can read my complete guide to acoustic treatment here, which shows how acoustic treatment works and how to get the best out of any room you are recording in.
What’s that buzzing sound? This is not the first comment you want to hear from someone you have just played your home recording to.
Try to identify sources of unwanted noise and address them before hitting the record button. This includes but is not limited to:
- Fret buzz or mechanical vibrations picked up on the mic generated by the guitar
- Impact sounds e.g. the guitar comes into contact with another surface
- Electrical interference (mostly limited to magnetic soundhole pickups)
- Excessive noise spilling in from outside
- String squeak e.g. the noise from your fingers sliding across the strings.
While some noise is unavoidable, you can address a lot of unwanted noise by inspecting the guitar and addressing any mechanical issues it may have e.g. fret buzz (strings buzzing against fret wires) or mechanical issues such as loose tuners.
As obvious as it sounds, you should also consider the chair you are be sitting in. Armrests are easy for guitars to knock against and while you may not hear it while you are playing the microphone has better hearing than you or I and will pick it up.
Also, be on the lookout for electromagnetic interference (60 cycle hum) e.g. lights, and appliances can interfere with magnetic soundhole pickups just as easily as they can single-coil pickups on electric guitars, and don’t even need to be on the same circuit.
Alternatively, if you are getting a lot of outside noise captured on the mic consider your microphone placement in the context of the room, unwanted noise spilling from your headphones or the fan on your computer.
When it comes to string squeak while there are plugins (iZotope RX is one such option) and methods you can employ (wet the tips of your fingers) to minimize the problem. Good technique e.g. lifting your fingers off the fretboard, rather than sliding is your best form of defense but takes time to adjust to.
The recording sounds different when listening on other devices
One of the first times I recorded in a real studio, I was surprised that the engineer had a set of worn-out, cheap speakers in the playback room along with high-end studio monitors.
When he noticed one of the members of the band I was in at the time taking a closer look he told us something I’ve never forgotten ‘most people aren’t going to hear your music on expensive speakers’.
This is perhaps even more valid now, in the era of handheld devices and streaming music services such as iTunes and Spotify where highly compressed, low bandwidth files are essential for distribution.
While it’s not practical to test and create alternative versions of your music for all environments, one thing you can do is analyze your recording when compressed.
Test on headphones, and a wide range of speakers e.g. living room speakers, car speakers, and your smartphone. It also helps to invest in a decent set of headphones so you are hearing as much detail as possible. But never rely solely on headphones, unless completely unavoidable, as it’s far more difficult to gauge aspects of the mix such as panning.
Not capturing the energy of the song
Are you a singer/songwriter? If so, are you planning on tracking vocals separately or recording the acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time?
It’s easy to get carried away with the recording process and neglect the energy of the performance.
Obviously recording the vocals on a separate track will give you more control when mixing and less spill, but if you are a singer/songwriter, you might also be more accustomed to playing and singing at the same time.
Suffice to say you should always consider the energy of the performance, and make compromises if required.
This may also involve taking the time to become more accustomed to the recording process. Lots of people when first starting out are thrown out by having to play to a click track for example, which you really need to do if you want to have a tight recording involving more than one instrument.
If you find you don’t perform as well as you usually do as soon as you hit record take the time to get used to the process and try to relax. While easier said than done, tension can greatly affect your playing and creativity.
While it’s hard to draw a direct line between time-wasting and recording quality, wasting time is a big problem when paying for studio time. I recall recording an EP with a band, with a drummer who was not used to playing to a click track. We ended up using 3 of our 5 allocated days editing drums and correcting timing issues. It made the entire process feel rushed. The mixing process at the end was also rushed as a result, affecting the quality of the end product.
While less of a problem when recording from home the fact remains, a lot of time can be lost when recording if you don’t prepare that would otherwise be invested in mixing.
This includes knowing your gear and knowing where your accessories are e.g. don’t waste time searching for missing cables, changing guitar strings, or simply not being well-rehearsed.
Another problem involving time-wasting is the programming of drums. Assuming you are not using a live drummer, you will most likely be using loop-based samples or drum software such as EZ Drummer or Superior Drums.
Personally, I keep drums pretty simple when recording acoustic guitar. But if you are planning on incorporating more sophisticated drum tracks, program the drums prior to recording or play to a click and then work on the drum track as a separate exercise.
But if you are looking for an overview, check the table below:
|Must Haves||Nice to Haves|
|Computer||Fast Computer (64bit with 8+gb ram)|
|Audio Interface with XLR input||Audio Interface with XLR and ¼ inch instrument input|
|Condenser Microphone and Cable (XLR)||Pair of condenser microphones (Small and large-diaphragm) and XLR cables|
|Free Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||Premium Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)|
|Headphones||Closed-back and open back headphones|
|Drum looping software|
|Microphone stand with flexible arm|
|Acoustic treatment (acoustic tiles, bass traps, decoupling stands for speakers)|
What is XLR? (aka X Connector, Locking Connector, Rubber Boot)
An XLR connector is a standard audio input cable connector for high-quality
audio. XLR enables a more balanced signal than a standard ¼” instrument cable.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAW)
Your choice of digital audio workstation (aka your DAW) won’t make a big difference to the quality of your recordings. DAW’s don’t really have much (if any) impact on sound quality so for the most part choose a DAW that fits your budget, that you find intuitive. While the list below isn’t extensive, I have included the DAW’s I have used personally and can recommend.
The truth is you don’t need to spend a lot of money on home recording software. If you are new to home recording and are focusing on recording acoustic guitar and vocals the following three, free DAW’s will provide all the functionality you need.
Free. Mac only.
If you are on Mac, one of the most popular free digital audio workstations available is GarageBand. The interface is intuitive and integrates well with other Apple products (e.g. the voice memo app) and devices (you can switch between your computer, iPhone, or iPad).
Considering it’s included free as part of the IOS operating system, Garageband offers a lot of features, including a powerful drum editor, a large number of virtual instruments, amp simulators (if you play electric guitar), and smart presets.
While not as sophisticated as its big brother, Logic Pro. When it comes to recording acoustic guitar Garageband has everything you need to get up and running including an extensive sound library, up to 32 tracks, and features such as automation, panning, native reverb, and compression.
And, if you outgrow Garageband, you can easily make the transition to Logic Pro, and as an added bonus you can also open your Garageband projects in Logic Pro.
Free for 60 days. Mac and Windows.
While Reaper isn’t technically free, you can download a full feature trial version, that can be used for up to 60 days. If you like the software, I’d strongly recommend paying the $60 (price at the time of publishing) as it’s a small price to pay for a DAW that offers this much functionality.
Keep in mind, Reaper is more powerful than Garageband, as a result, more complex. So it may take those new to home recording more time to feel comfortable using it. But it’s a professional-quality offering and is often used in professional environments.
See the video below from two engineers, Glenn Fricker and Warren Huart.
Reaper forgoes some of the intuitiveness of Garageband in favor of more powerful and customizable features. This includes editable toolbars and menu options, allowing you to personalize the interface to suit your recording process.
Reaper also offers independent track types, meaning you don’t need to add either audio or midi tracks each time you prepare to record a track. In a nutshell, this means you can trigger midi directly on your audio track. You can also control variables such as fading and volume with relative ease using the drag and drop handles.
Reaper is a powerful DAW and is well supported, with an active community behind it. As a result, upgrades and improvements are being made all the time.
What is Midi?
Midi (musical instrument digital interface) is essentially a digital standard that allows for the representation of a sound, including its values such as volume, pitch, and sustain. This allows computers and other midi-enabled instruments to communicate. If you are not familiar with midi, the first place you are likely to come across it if recording acoustic guitar demos is drums.
Magix Music Maker Free
Magix music maker free is a great option for those new to home recording but does come with some limitations including only allowing for up to 8 tracks per project. If you are just starting out, 8 tracks will be more than enough to get you up and running and like Garageband Magix Music Maker Free is also highly intuitive.
Additionally, if you want to add virtual instruments the software includes many options that can be dragged and dropped directly into the track window in a highly intuitive fashion.
Lastly, the software can be upgraded from under $100.00 (price at the time of publishing). Or if you want to transition to a more sophisticated DAW from the same family of products e.g. Music Maker Pro or Acid Pro you will find the interfaces share many similarities.
Many premium DAW’s also offer trials or limited feature versions of their software. You will also find premium DAW’s that come bundled with the equipment you are going to require e.g. audio interface, microphone, and cable, headphones, and DAW) for under $200.00.
Magix Acid Pro
I previously used Acid Pro on and off for over 10 years, before moving over to Logic Pro when switching from PC to Mac. Acid Pro is simple to use, allowing you to get ideas down fast thanks to the loop-based nature of the software.
Earlier versions were prone to crashing (at least in my experience), but Magix has improved this vulnerability in recent versions.
Magix Acid Pro is also great value provided you purchase online and don’t expect any packaging.
Formerly a Sony product, Magix Music Studio has many stock mixing and effects plugins that you can utilize. And, the ease of adding a drum program such as Ez Drummer through the VST channels is simple.
You can upload to the web or burn to CD straight from the program and you can even import songs to make your own remixes with ease.
A few short years ago, many considered Cubase the home recording software of choice for the home-based musician. While there are plenty of more user-friendly options available now, Cubase (currently at version 11) offers a lot.
While more complex than some competing DAW’s if you are a solo musician Cubase provides a stack of instrumentation to easily create backing music to accompany your performance. In fact, you have over 900 sounds and instruments onboard.
You also have a high level of mixing capability within Cubase including post-production removal of sibilance. One other particularly impressive feature of Cubase is the ability to create midi files which can be transposed directly to musical notation from within the program itself.
A little pricier than some, for the full feature version ($315 at the time of writing), you can generally pick up a copy of Cubase Elements (a less feature-laden version of Cubase) for around $100 (at the time of writing).
PreSonus Studio one
Currently at version 5, studio one features unlimited tracks and while full-featured, has been designed with ease of use in mind, mainly due to its highly intuitive editing tools, making Studio one is one of the better DAW’s for beginners.
It includes many of the features listed in other software packages. While I have heard good things, it’s not a program I’ve used extensively so won’t say too much here, but if you are interested in checking it out click here for a free demo.
I’ll admit my bias upfront as I use Logic Pro almost daily.
It offers tremendous value, considering it’s a professional level DAW at a fraction of the price e.g. $200 (one-time fee) at the time of writing, compared to $200 per year for Pro Tools.
What I appreciate most about Logic Pro is despite being a sophisticated program offering a huge amount of functionality it’s simple enough to get up and running recording audio if you have at least some experience with other DAW’s.
And, being a popular DAW with musicians, there’s a tonne of available resources online. In practical terms, this means for those making the switch from another DAW the process is far less painful than it might otherwise be.
The stock plugins are better than any other DAW I have used and important components including the customizable taskbar allow the user to discard features they don’t require, keeping the interface uncluttered, like Reaper. It’s also powerful, capable of recording up to 1000 stereo audio tracks while placing a priority on system performance. Perhaps the only real drawback is it’s Mac only and it won’t accommodate VST plugins.
For a great all-around professional DAW however that will remain viable long after you become more advanced, it’s literally a no-brainer if on Mac.
No Pro Tools?
While I have omitted a couple of popular options including Ableton Live, and Fl Studio – one name, some of the more experienced home recording musicians may have noticed missing from the list above is ProTools, the industry-standard software for recording and mixing.
The reason I haven’t included it here is that, while I have had the opportunity to record with it fairly extensively, I’ve never been the one behind the desk operating the software and didn’t want to recommend something I am not completely familiar with.
Pro Tools features a completely free version (Pro Tools First) and is the industry standard, so there’s a strong argument to be made for using ProTools for those who see themselves advancing to more sophisticated recording projects further along.
But in all honesty, if you are just getting started recording audio, and your main focus is acoustic guitar and vocals, I wouldn’t recommend starting with Pro Tools.
An essential piece of equipment you really can’t do without if recording audio is an audio interface. If recording from home using a computer, an audio interface takes the analog signal detected from the microphone (or instrument cable) and converts it to digital.
This process is known as analog-to-digital conversion (ADC for short) and allows the music you record to be edited and manipulated by the computer. The good news is thanks to the newfound popularity of home recording, the industry has become more competitive and quality audio interfaces have become affordable.
But which interface should you get? Below are a couple of things to consider.
The most important feature to consider for your recording process is the I/O configuration (input/output configuration).
If you were recording a live band for example you would require many inputs, especially if live drums are part of the job. But in our case, if simply recording acoustic guitar and perhaps vocals an interface with 2 inputs and 2 outputs should suffice. Also, ensure the interface has the right type of inputs for your purposes e.g. instrument inputs (¼”) and XLR inputs for microphones.
Otherwise, connectivity (how the device connects to the computer) and ensuring the interface has phantom power (for connecting dynamic mics) are also important, but most modern interfaces feature phantom power already and connect via USB2 which is common for most applications.
What about Recording Quality?
Otherwise, the recording quality will be dictated by the quality of the converters, and preamps. And to be completely honest, the observable difference in sound quality between a sub $100 entry-level interface and a professional interface is minimal, especially for home recording.
I won’t delve into the world of audio interfaces too much here, as it’s easy to get bogged down quickly, but if you are recording acoustic guitar, you can keep it simple.
Offerings from Focusrite e.g. the Focusrite Scarlett Solo, or 2i2 are great. However, I personally use the Steinberg UR 22 which offers both instrument and XLR inputs and features a rugged design. Steinberg is a subsidiary of Yamaha, enough said.
I’ve written fairly extensively on audio interfaces here, and this article on how digital recording works will help bring you up to speed quickly on the process and why an audio interface is essential.
Microphones for Recording Acoustic Guitar
Typically, recording studios spend big on microphones. Aside from the performance itself, and the acoustics of the room, the mic you record with will make the biggest difference to the sound you record. If you plan on recording acoustic guitar and vocals, in a perfect world you would own both a small-diaphragm and large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone.
Small diaphragm condenser mics are better for recording guitar as they are more sensitive, while large diaphragm mics are better for vocals as they tend to add an element of warmth to a vocal performance.
If your budget won’t quite extend to buying two microphones, to begin with (mics can be expensive after all) and you plan on recording vocals as well as guitar, opt for a large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone and consider a small diaphragm mic at a later date.
What does Cardioid mean?
Cardioid refers to the microphone’s polar pattern e.g. the mic’s directional sensitivity. In simple terms, this means the direction the mic is most sensitive to. For example, a cardioid mic is most sensitive to sound from the front, whereas an Omnidirectional microphone detects sound equally from all directions. The benefit of a cardioid microphone is you can focus the mic on a specific area of the guitar (aiming directly at the 12th fret is usually a good place to start) and are less prone to ambient noise and sound reflections.
What does Condenser mean?
There are two main types of microphones available for home recording, dynamic, and condenser. There are also ribbon mics but these are usually more expensive and as a result, less common.
Condenser mics have a higher frequency response (e.g. they are more sensitive) making them ideal for recording the subtleties of acoustic performance. They also require a power source (Phantom power) and this is why it’s important your interface has phantom power or you at least have an independent phantom power source. Dynamic mics, on the other hand, tend to handle higher volume better and as a result, are more commonly used for drums, micing up guitar amps, and live vocals. They do not require phantom power.
How Much Should You Spend?
Like audio interfaces, the cost of microphones, at least entry-level mics, has dropped in recent years. As a result, you can find inexpensive studio microphones online at amazon.com and other music retailers. I’d recommend avoiding these cheaper options, however, as there can be a high degree of manufacturing inconsistency amongst cheaper brands of microphones in terms of signal-to-noise ratio and directional sensitivity.
If you can stretch the budget, I personally use Rode Mics and recommend the Rode NT5 for recording acoustic guitar and the Rode S1 or NT1A for recording vocals. However, microphones from manufacturers such as Sennheiser, Neumann, SE Electronics, and Shure are always a safe bet.
Use a Mic Stand and Pop Filter for Recording Vocals
Lastly, if recording vocals use a mic stand and pop filter. A mic stand is required as the microphone should be supported, so it isn’t resting on a surface e.g. your desk, and be more prone to picking up vibrations.
A good mic stand will also allow you to accurately position the microphone when recording guitar.
A pop filter is also essential if recording vocals. This relatively inexpensive piece of equipment (less than $10 in most cases) eliminates (or greatly reduces) sibilance (the hissing noise a singer makes when pronouncing words containing S or SH at the beginning).
I’d simply be doubling up on information if providing an extensive resource on microphones for home-recording as I’ve already written a long piece here that explains almost everything about microphones and recording acoustic guitars, including how they work and tips for getting the most out of your microphone/s.
The Recording Process
Now that we’ve discussed what makes a great home recording and the equipment required to pull it off, it’s time to begin your recording session. But before you hit record, give some thought to what you are actually trying to achieve.
What’s the Point
There’s a lot of different reasons someone might want to record themselves playing acoustic guitar, including:
- Monitoring progress
Recording yourself playing guitar is a great way to improve areas of your playing such as timing and accuracy, but requires less consideration in terms of recording quality.
- Recording quick demos, developing a catalog of song ideas
If you are a songwriter, then developing a process that allows you to record initial sketches of your music can be invaluable. Recording demos also allows you to have your music heard by peers and get feedback before committing to a more time-consuming recording session.
- Sharing your music with the world
When it comes to recording high-quality audio, as previously mentioned, the barrier to entry has never been lower. The combination of inexpensive digital audio workstations (DAW’s), affordable, yet reliable recording equipment, and online platforms such as Soundcloud, Youtube, Spotify, and iTunes have allowed many unknown artists to get their music heard by a wider audience.
Considering the options above, before you do anything else, ask yourself what’s the point?
If for instance, you’re wanting to monitor the progress of your playing, or record a quick idea that you hope to expand upon at a later date, developing a reliable and repeatable process that doesn’t place obstacles in front of you and reduce your capacity for creativity is going to be the priority.
If on the other hand, you want to share your music with a wider audience, the focus should be on quality over expedience. Personally, I use my home studio to record my ideas, develop the better ones over time and then re-record them, taking considerably more time with the performance and mixing process.
The Role of the Acoustic Guitar
Once you have established the point of your recording project, ask yourself, what role is the acoustic guitar going to play in achieving your vision?
This may change from song to song but it’s always best to start with the end in mind. If for instance, you’re a singer-songwriter and the acoustic guitar is going to be the main instrument in your song the tone of the guitar and how it fills the spaces in your recording will be key.
If on the other hand, you see the acoustic guitar playing more of a background role, sharing the limelight with other instruments you will need to consider texture, and where the guitar will sit in the mix and the tone that will most ideally suit the role it is to play in the context of the song. E.g. leaving space for the vocals, in the mid-range.
It’s important to consider these facts first as they will have an influence over every aspect of the recording process and later on when it comes to mixing.
If you are simply recording your progress or making a quick demo you may not want to labor on this point for too long. But if you are recording your music for others to hear, consider tracks you are familiar with that have captured the acoustic guitar in a way that appeals to you and suits what you are doing.
For instance, I have heard plenty of acoustic players reference the sound of the guitar on Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’.
If I wanted to attempt to emulate the tone of the guitar it would be interesting to try:
- Recording in a room with high ceilings
- Using old strings on the guitar
- Placing the mic closer than usual to the guitar
This information is pretty easy to find online and using a reference can be useful when recording guitars. Sometimes doing your homework in this way will pay off, other times it won’t but nothing ventured nothing gained.
The other thing to consider are your input levels. If you drag a commercial quality song into your DAW, you can begin to listen to the volume of the different instruments and match the levels on your own recordings. Using a reference in this way can be incredibly useful.
As we are recording acoustic guitar, the first thing to do is ensure the guitar itself sounds great. We’ve already touched on addressing unwanted noises from the guitar. Next, we need to consider the tone of the guitar.
Keep in mind, we are trying to reproduce the tone of the guitar acoustically. Instead of focusing on improving the tone of the guitar in your mix. Work on making the guitar sound better, as this will result in a better sounding take. There are a few things you can do here. One of the first is to decide whether you prefer the tone of your guitar with new strings or old strings.
In most cases, I’d recommend installing a fresh set of strings on the guitar. If you are concerned about the strings sounding too bright (new strings often do) or your new strings creating excessive string noise (string squeak) or you are just concerned about tuning stability, put the new strings on the guitar the day before and play them in a little.
Just don’t play them too much.
New strings tend to sound brighter and incorporate more overtones than old strings, which makes the guitar sound richer, and more interesting. Now is also not the time to experiment with a new brand of string or try a different gauge.
Tuning and Intonation
You should also check the intonation of your guitar. While it may sound fine when playing open position chords, sometimes the further up the neck you venture the more capacity there is for tuning issues.
Obviously, tuning is also a big factor. If recording a rough demo, tune the guitar and listen for the guitar going out of tune. If taking things more seriously I’d recommend tuning between each and every take.
While it can be time-consuming, there’s not much that’s more frustrating than nailing your guitar take only to discover a tuning issue when listening back.
Picking the ideal room to record in
When it comes to selecting the room you are going to be recording in, the room you choose will also have a large influence on the finished quality of your recording.
If you have options, choose a room that has just a small amount of natural ambiance without being too reflective or adding too much in the way of natural reverb. Reverb can always be added later in the mix but if it is there in abundance on your live takes it will be difficult to control.
How to Test a Room
To test the amount of natural reverb or echo in a room, walk around the perimeter of the room while clapping your hands at regular intervals, listening for echo or reverb (echo is one sound reflection, reverb is multiple reflections).
If the room sounds harsh, or you hear a lot of reverb and this is the room you have to record in, in the future, you will be well served to integrate some basic acoustic treatment to improve the focus of the guitar on your recordings.
You can read all about how acoustic treatment works here.
If on the other hand, the room sounds good and has a natural ambiance without an excessive amount of reverb, it may well be worth running your mic and testing the sound of the room when recorded before putting time and effort into acoustic treatment.
Sound treatment and soundproofing, while sounding alike are based on two entirely different, but equally important concepts. Soundproofing is usually done to prevent unwanted external noise from being detected by the microphone or to prevent noise escaping from the room you are recording in.
It usually involves installing insulation e.g. between your walls to add density to areas soundwaves would otherwise permeate. If you are not experiencing unwanted external noise or are not concerned with annoying your neighbors, don’t concern yourself with soundproofing.
Soundproofing can be an expensive and time-consuming exercise if you are trying to achieve a completely soundproof recording environment.
If however you are experiencing issues with unwanted external sounds being picked up on your recordings, or you just want to stop your neighbors complaining, aim for a moderate level of soundproofing and identify areas that could potentially leak including windows, doorways, floors, and ceilings.
It helps to visualize the room as being filled with water. Ask yourself where would the water leak from into adjacent rooms? In my case, I often record late at night and don’t want to upset the neighbors or wake up my young family sleeping upstairs, so soundproofing is fairly important to me.
Because of this I’ve built a soundproof booth for recording vocals and used insulation materials to reduce gaps in doorways, replaced the lightweight interior door with a solid wood exterior door, added an inexpensive draft stopper under the door, and sprayed foam insulation to block gaps. All fairly simple and inexpensive measures, aside from the booth, but make a big difference.
As you can probably imagine after getting this deep into this article. Much of the work involved in capturing a high-quality recording is in pre-production e.g. prior to hitting record. But, aspects such as the performance, sound checking your input levels, positioning the microphone, and editing your tracks are also very important.
We’ll go through each of these below in more detail. Keep in mind, while I’ll be demonstrating my process using Logic Pro (my DAW of choice). The information provided will be applicable to all DAW’s, however, the interface will obviously be different, so you may need to check your user manual if unsure of anything.
Your first order of business is to open your DAW and click new to open a new project.
Give the project a working title you will remember. Once you have a number of projects on your computer you will be glad you named the project descriptively. Next, add your first track. In most cases, you will be asked what type of track you want to add, Midi or Audio.
If you are incorporating midi drums, open a midi track and drag the drum loop directly onto the track, from your drum program of choice e.g. EZ Drummer or the proprietary drum software bundled with your DAW.
You may need to copy and paste multiple sections of the loop unless you have already programmed your entire song in a third-party application.
Just make sure you have enough individual sections added to account for the entire song and the count-in. You can also add fills and swap in different loops for different parts of the song at this point e.g. it’s likely the different sections of the song will utilize different loops from the same family of loops.
I like to utilize a count-in and give myself plenty of pre-roll, especially if managing the performance and recording of the project myself (the pre-roll is the duration of the count-in).
Next, add an audio track, most DAW’s will have a plus button above the first track, as seen in the top left corner of the screenshot above. You may also need to switch on phantom power to get your mic working. Depending on your choice of interface, this is usually a switch located at the back or front of the interface.
Next, check your input gain, by adjusting the levels on your interface, and then test your levels taking into account proximity to the mic. I also like to introduce sufficient headroom so I tend to record with my master slider at around -6DB.
Taken from the automotive industry to describe the space between your head and the ceiling of a car. Headroom describes the dynamic range you have available between your signal and where clipping would otherwise occur. Clipping is waveform distortion and occurs when output exceeds what the hardware being used is capable of producing.
Positioning the Mic
As previously discussed, a good starting point for recording acoustic guitar is to direct the microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar, 12 – 14 inches from the guitar.
This can be different if recording classical guitar, due to the wide dynamic range of the instrument and the emphasis on dynamics in classical music. If you are recording with a classical guitar, I’ve written a complete guide to recording classical guitar here.
12 – 14 inches is a good starting point, but may need to be adjusted based on your attack on the guitar e.g. if aggressive strumming is called for, your microphone placement may be different from that of a gentler fingerstyle arrangement.
Also, keep in mind the angle of the mic. While it might sound obvious if the mic is angled toward the bass strings of the guitar the bass frequencies will be more present on your recordings. Play around with the proximity of the mic and angle of the mic, by performing multiple takes, and then listen back to the recording until you settle on mic placement.
(Keep in mind, if doing this and you end up testing 5-6 different positions you can quickly lose track. So name each track descriptively e.g. 12 inches – 12th fret, middle. Or something similar.
Clearly, if you are recording using a microphone you are going to need headphones to prevent spillover from being picked up by the mic.
While most of us may not have the luxury of owning dedicated mixing (open back headphones) a set of closed-back headphones are the best option for both recording and mixing and will limit the amount of spill, although it is something you should remain on the lookout for when listening back to your takes.
Audition your individual instruments before recording. Test your levels against your drum track (if using one) and make sure you hear yourself clearly. I recommend limiting the signal for individual tracks to around -12db to provide plenty of headroom for each individual track.
You may need to adjust your headphone level or the mix between your input and DAW on your audio interface to hear every aspect of your performance. Take your time with this, it’s important you hear yourself clearly when recording, especially when recording vocals.
If you are a vocalist and have had the experience of performing live and despite having a soundcheck, the foldbacks weren’t loud enough to hear yourself, you understand how difficult it can be when you can not hear yourself clearly.
While less anxiety-riddled than live performance, you are otherwise flying blind so take the time to ensure your levels are spot on or the performance will almost certainly suffer.
Next, the moment of truth has arrived, it’s time to hit record. Wait for the count-in and play your designated part.
While it might sound obvious, it’s a good idea to remember to relax as much as possible and really focus on timing. If you are new to recording, the experience can cause tension to manifest in your neck, shoulders, and arms and will undoubtedly have an effect on your performance, especially as a guitarist.
This will improve over time as you become more accustomed to recording and find the entire process less daunting, but when first starting out, remind yourself to relax and place a strong emphasis on the basics such as timing.
Editing – Record Multiple Takes
In the majority of cases, I recommend continuing with the take even if you notice a flaw.
I do, however, understand the urge to record everything in one perfect take. The track window feels less cluttered. But, while It definitely feels more organic, there is no point spending hours of your time trying to get the perfect take, if it’s just not happening.
Instead, consider building a master take from your individual takes. That perfect take won’t mean all that much to you after editing and moving onto the mixing process. Editing in this way is a more efficient use of your time, and is especially beneficial when it comes to recording vocals. There’s literally no reason not to, especially if you find yourself perfecting most of the song and are just let down by small things that can be edited out e.g. replaced later.
Using pre-roll to overdub mistakes can also be beneficial, but if you are the sole engineer and artist on your project and don’t have anyone helping you it can be too fiddly and time-consuming.
Be sure, if building a master track, to name each individual track you might potentially use with a descriptive name. If you are recording your tracks in a rapid-fire way you can easily lose track of where you are if you simply name your tracks, track 1, track 2, and so on.
Be on the lookout for fatigue while recording. There’s no point recording take after take if your hands are getting sore or your concentration levels are beginning to wane or something feels off. Despite what you might think if new to the recording process, recording can be exhausting both mentally and physically.
If you feel you are hitting a wall. Get up, stretch your legs, pat the dog, make a coffee and come back refreshed in 5-10 minutes. I do this all the time and it can make a world of difference (just remember to re-tune before hitting record again).
You might not have this luxury in a professional recording environment, where time equals money, so take advantage of your home studio and the lack of time pressure.
Personally, I feel the performance and mixing process should be kept separate. Both utilize different parts of the brain (at least it feels that way), so it pays not to overlap. Having said that I personally like to double my guitar parts and hard pan individual guitar.
I believe when recording vocals, that having good separation of the guitars prior to recording vocals provides the necessary space and allows me to perform better. It’s possible this may be entirely different for you in the context of the song you are recording.
So, the best advice I can provide you is to test both methods and see what feels most comfortable to you. Not necessarily what sounds best to you (we’ll get to that later when mixing). If you can use this technique to better hear yourself when performing vocals it’s worth the effort.
Recording vocals isn’t all the different to recording acoustic guitar. If you have the luxury of changing mics, use a large-diaphragm mic for vocals and utilize a pop filter.
In most cases, the proximity of the singer to the mic should be 3” to prevent distortion or the proximity effect from occurring. But, this will depend on the vocal delivery.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about recording vocals, as this article is predominantly about recording acoustic guitars, but many of the same principles apply. Watch your proximity to the microphone, be mindful of fatigue, and don’t start over if you make a minor mistake.
Great vocals capture the energy of the vocalist. Performing multiple takes can begin to introduce self-doubt and this tends to affect the energy levels of the performance. So, much like recording acoustic guitar relax as much as possible and above all else make sure you are well-rehearsed.
Mixing and Mastering
Once you have finished recording your individual parts you can move on to post-production, in the form of mixing, and finally mastering your finished recording.
While outlining this entire process is well beyond the scope of this article (music production can be studied to a degree level after all) I’ve written an entire article on how to eq acoustic guitars here, that I recommend reading if you want to gain at least an introduction to the process.
Otherwise, check out sites such as recordingrevolution.com and producelikeapro.com. I’ve been fortunate enough to have taken short courses from both and thoroughly recommend them as great resources to learn the craft of mixing and mastering and music production in general.
Mixing, for those unaware, is the process of organizing the individual tracks and achieving balance across the recording, by utilizing features such as:
- Panning – Used to separate tracks by degrees left and right to give your recordings width.
- Compression – Used to minimize the difference between the loudest and quietest sections of each track.
- EQ – Used to reduce, boost or completely eliminate unwanted frequencies that are otherwise affecting the quality of the recording.
You can consider eq (short for equalization) as a form of volume control for individual frequency bands as opposed to the master volume control. Much of this involves utilizing low and high pass filters to remove unwanted frequencies and boosting frequencies to give the track separation between the different instrumentation involved in the recording process.
There’s plenty more to mixing than this, however, including adding effects such as reverb, and delay, and introducing automation, but as mentioned this goes well beyond the scope of this article.
Mastering, on the other hand, is usually performed by a separate engineer (in a professional setting anyway) and is the process of preparing the final track in its intended format for delivery. This takes into account normalizing levels between different songs on an album, optimizing for different delivery formats (encoding), and making further adjustments to eq and compression, along with adding fades to the beginning and end of the track.
You can find plenty of free information online to learn more about both mixing and mastering, but there’s no substitute for experience so be prepared to invest a lot of time into the process to really bring your ears up to speed.
This might be the longest article I’ve written on the acousticguitarist.com and for good reason.
Recording your own music, while complex, is incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing I would rather do with my spare time. I’ve felt this way for more than 30 years and never once lost the passion and genuine sense of excitement that comes with recording something that previously didn’t exist in the world.
Songwriting in itself is a magical experience.
Just think, if you happen to chance upon the right combination of harmony and melody it’s not entirely impossible to write the next ‘yesterday’ just like Paul McCartney did all those years ago.
But unlike McCartney and Lennon, who required a record label and professional studio environment (that at the time was very limited compared to much of the equipment discussed in this article), we now have the opportunity to record professional-quality audio from the comfort of our own homes.
Add to that, the internet and the various platforms available to help you self-distribute your own music and it’s easy to see that the barrier to entry hasn’t just been removed it’s been completely destroyed and that’s great news for creators and music fans alike. I wish you all the best in your pursuit of recording your own music and hope the information above helps you get started.